Thursday, January 26, 2012

My conversation with an alien

The other day I found myself talking to an alien.

It all started with a visit to a friend’s house. They asked me how my new novel was progressing and we chatted about this for a short while. Little did I realise their young son was listening. He joined the conversation by asking why I bothered producing a paper-based copy of the novels. An innocent enough question, at first glance, especially given to way e-books are clearly taking over and will certainly become the main choice for readers of this lad’s generation, if they aren’t already.

I tried to explain how my love of books, and writing, stemmed from the great memories I cherish, associated with the tales I read, and often the circumstances of where I read them. I cited three examples to illustrate why these memories have persisted.

I was a precocious reader and devoured books by the tree load. My parent were quite happy for me to grab a book, once homework was out of the way, but not too pleased when I insisted on finishing a chapter before going to bed. Little did they know, I frequently snuck the book up to my room where I continued reading under the bedclothes with the aid of a flashlight. (This is one instance where back-lighted e-reader screens have a distinct advantage).

As my second example, I recounted a journey made on a ferry from the UK to France when I was 15, where I was violently seasick. The crossing was anything but smooth and I had read one and a half James Bond novels during the trip (I can speed-read when I want).

My third memory was of four months condemned to bed, recovering from a serious illness. I was so out of it, the only things I could do were watch “Falcon Crest” or read. There’s only so much Angela Channing a human being can take, so I read 47 novels in the first month alone (including all that Robert Ludlum had written at the time). After that, people kept turning up with suitcases full of books to keep me fuelled.

As a ‘bonus’ I added the unique experience of reading “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) while sitting outside the very same farmhouse where she lived, when I was in Kenya in the ‘70’s, eons before Hollywood got its hands on the tale.

These examples, just four of many, where being able to escape from the mundane into worlds populated by spies, robots, conspiracies, spaceships, great journeys and a long etcetera, brought added dimensions to enrich my existence.

For me, a major part of the remembered experience is the tactile sensation associated with the read: the all-enclosing, warm security of the sheets as the words whisked me off to distant planets with Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy”; “Goldfinger”, with one hand grabbing a rail as the boat was tossed willy-nilly in the Channel; or looking up from anecdotes set in the Ngong Hills, to see the very same landscape and smell the red dust suspended in the dry air. Magic Moments all.

You could argue the same experiences could be enjoyed with an e-reader. I won’t attempt to deny the possibility; however the sensory input was completed for me by the texture of the pages between my fingers, not the smooth plastic of a Kindle or Nook.

So the alien asked me if it was just nostalgia. I reflected for a while and eventually agreed that he was probably right. As long as it is still possible, I will continue to produce a paper-based copy, even if it’s just one, so I can see it on my bookshelf at home and remember all the events that brought it into existence. You can’t point to a Kindle and have the same feeling: “see that thing you can’t touch, smell, hear or taste in that plastic box over there, well I remember…”

Vapour-ware we used to call it.

Why do I say he is an alien?

This is the generation that will have almost no reference of paper-based books when they are my age. I feel sorry for them. It’s like they are from a different planet, certainly a different culture.

How much of your memories are stimulate by what you were reading at the time?

Eric at
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